A substantial rethinking of foreign aid has taken place since the mid-1990s, and Africa has been a site for experimentation, not least because the region receives the largest amount of aid relative to the size of its economy and population. In part because of a growing sense that aid has created various forms of dependency and has not been particularly effective in promoting economic development, the past decade has witnessed a shift toward new approaches designed to promote local ownership and lessen micromanagement by donors.
What has been the impact of these reforms? Both of these books eschew the broad generalizations and provocative anecdotes that mar most books about aid and instead describe the great variance in outcomes across the continent. Joseph and Gillies provide a consistently excellent collection of essays on such topics as budget support, debt relief, aid in postconflict situations, and aid that promotes good governance and democracy. The theme linking the essays is the difficulty of promoting "smart aid," defined as more effective aid. Many of the old problems persist. The contributors, a mixture of academics and aid practitioners, understand that the usual focus in the press and in diplomatic worlds on the level of aid has long been misguided -- African development requires better aid rather than simply more aid. Another theme that emerges is the need for domestic political reform within Africa for aid to be more effective. The contributors clearly suggest that Africa's recent democratization efforts, although not a panacea, have had a salutary effect and need to be deepened.
The collection of case studies edited by Whitfield focuses on the evolving relationship between donors and recipient governments. The Africa the studies describe has seen the contentious policy debates of the 1980s replaced by a more consensual environment, but one in which donor preferences continue to dominate. The focus of the eight case studies ranges from the more assertive governments of Rwanda and Ethiopia to Mali and Zambia, where it is hard to discern any government policy preference beyond the maximization of aid. Africa, the book suggests, benefited from its fastest rate of postindependence economic growth this last decade thanks to policy reforms, increased investment, and rising amounts of aid and debt relief. One wonders about the impact of the global recession on the aid relationship in the coming years, particularly if fiscal pressures drag aid levels down.